ADA Signage and Universal Design: Universal Healthcare Symbols

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a client, a would-be client, or a sign geek. I happen to be the latter, and something I really geek out on is the whole idea of universal symbols –commonly known in the signage industry as pictograms — to improve universal design access and maximize wayfinding ada signage performance. You’re probably already familiar with a few universal symbols such as the following:

Hospital settings, however, surprisingly have few universal healthcare symbols. Nearly everyone recognizes the big blue “H” sign that indicates that a hospital is nearby, but when it comes to actually navigating your way through the maze of corridors, double-doors, and “mystery” hallways, it can be nothing short of an ordeal. Hospital staff can spend a good deal of their time just giving directions to visitors, patients and even fellow staff members unfamiliar with a facility’s layout.

Well, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Hablamos Juntos want to change all of that. Working with the Society for Environmental Graphic Design, the partnership recently finalized a series of universal symbols designed to facilitate wayfinding in healthcare facilities. The process of conceptualizing, researching, designing, analyzing, and finally selecting the symbols took several years and involved intense focus group discussions and rigorous testing using methods adopted by the International Standards Organization. Ultimately the group was able to winnow the selection down to 28 symbols that it found were most effective at conveying the appropriate information to visitors and patients and which also conformed to ADA guidelines.

The 28 symbols represent some of the most commonly referenced functions and locations in a typical hospital, including (but not limited to):

  • Waiting Rooms
  • Pharmacies
  • Billing Departments
  • Operating Rooms
  • Emergency Rooms
  • Pediatrics
  • Radiology
  • Cardiology

The panel did find that while some symbols were easily recognized by the vast majority of test subjects, some were less obvious (e.g., Oncology), indicating that further education to the general population is necessary to truly make all the symbols universal. Note that the symbols not only target the non-English speaking segment of the population – which in many communities represent a large proportion of hospital visitors and patients – but also the many, many Americans who find hospitals in general difficult to navigate. The symbols have already been installed and tested in several facilities across the United States, including the International Community Health Services facility in Seattle. As the symbols gain widespread acceptance and public awareness, the hope is that they truly become the “universal language” in healthcare settings here and around the world. So, what do you think of the symbols? Can you match the symbol to the function or department it’s meant to represent? Do you think that these will improve healthcare wayfinding, especially as they become more widely adopted?

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